Russia’s Naval Strategy in the Mediterranean

One more in the series of policy briefs on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russian naval strategy in the Mediterranean, written in June but only recently published. As with the last one, I am posting the full text here with permission from the Marshall Center. Please go to the Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version.


Executive Summary

  • Over the last decade, Russia has expanded its military footprint in the Mediterranean. Since establishing its Mediterranean Squadron in 2013, it has largely maintained a permanent naval presence in the region, based primarily on ships from the Black Sea Fleet, with support from ships and submarines of the Northern and Baltic Fleets.
  • Russia’s strategy uses the Mediterranean’s geography to protect Russia’s southern flanks while seeking to challenge the naval supremacy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United States in the eastern Mediterranean. Russia depends on maintaining and gradually expanding its naval presence in the Mediterranean while also securing expanded access to ports and bases, with the possibility of eventually contesting NATO’s dominance in the central Mediterranean as well.
  • Although the Russian Navy’s missions in the Mediterranean are primarily related to coastal defense and protection of territorial waters, conventional deterrence has come to play an increasingly important role since the development of a ship-based cruise missile capability. The Russian Navy has sought to establish credible maritime conventional deterrence versus NATO through the combination of air defenses and cruise missile–equipped ships, which work together to signal that any use of NATO naval forces against Russian ships and facilities would be highly costly for the adversary.

Russia’s Strategic Goals

Russia’s strategy in the Mediterranean is focused on three key goals: taking advantage of the Mediterranean’s geographical position to improve Russia’s security, using Russia’s position in the Mediterranean to increase Russia’s status as an alternative world power to the United States, and providing support for the Syrian regime. The strategy has three key elements. The first element is the positioning of a credible military force in the Mediterranean. A permanent force in the region is important for several Russian objectives, including protecting Russian approaches and reducing Russia’s vulnerability to surprise.

This force also affords Russia more flexibility and capability in countering Western activities in the Mediterranean, grants Russia more-ready access to the world’s oceans, reduces the time needed to shuttle forces and platforms to the region in case of a conflict, and gives Russia a constant presence for spreading influence in the surrounding countries.

The second element of the strategy consists of an effort to secure allies and partners in the region with the goal of increasing port access for Russia’s naval squadron. Although Syria remains the critical ally for Russia, efforts to enhance cooperation with Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and other states have been successful to a greater or lesser extent.

The third element of the strategy builds on the second and focuses on establishing naval bases in the region—an effort successful only in Syria, so far. A base in the central Mediterranean, such as in Libya, would be particularly important from a strategic point of view, allowing Russia to expand its naval footprint beyond the eastern Mediterranean.

Without access granted by allies in the Mediterranean, a standing military presence, and regional basing, Moscow would likely find it more difficult to conduct operations in pursuit of its overarching strategic goals in the region. Were the three elements achieved, the Russian military would be in a much more favorable position in the event of hostilities or conflict in the Mediterranean.

Russia’s Naval Capabilities in the Mediterranean

In 2013, Russia reestablished a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea with its Mediterranean Squadron. The Black Sea Fleet (BSF) has been the primary supplier of ships and logistics for the squadron. Since 2014, the BSF has acquired six new attack submarines, three frigates, and several patrol ships and small missile ships. In conjunction with these acquisitions, Russia has begun major overhauls of some of its Soviet-era ships. Russia has moved air defense batteries into Crimea, where these batteries provide further cover for Russian platforms operating in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. The introduction of multiple platforms armed with long-range cruise missiles, and the addition of air defense batteries in Crimea, has fundamentally changed the way the Black Sea Fleet operates. Armed with Kalibr missile systems, which have a demonstrated range of 1,500–2,000 km, the fleet’s newest ships can strike distant targets from well-protected zones near Russia’s coastline in Crimea and Novorossiysk.

Since the addition of six Varshavyanka-class submarines to the BSF in 2017, Russia has stationed two such vessels in Tartus, Syria. Surface ships and submarines from Russia’s other fleets, mainly the Northern and Baltic, have participated in squadron operations at various times as well. The force has actively contributed to Russia’s military operations in Syria. In addition to delivering troops, BSF vessels have fired Kalibr missiles at ground targets throughout Syria. Russian ships have also shadowed U.S. ships in the eastern Mediterranean, and Russian submarines deployed to the Mediterranean have tracked U.S. and NATO platforms there as well. The squadron has also facilitated Russian naval diplomacy efforts, as ships from the squadron have called at ports at Cyprus, Egypt, and Malta.

The BSF will continue to acquire new ships during the next ten years, allowing Russia to increase the number of ships potentially able to deploy for operations in the Mediterranean. In addition, Russia has strengthened its air and air defense forces in the Mediterranean, positioning a range of tactical combat aircraft at its air base in Syria and having demonstrated the ability to surge long-range aviation into the Mediterranean from bases in Russian territory. Russian defenses can control the entire Black Sea from Crimea, including all approaches to Russian coastal areas. Russia has been deploying similar protective capabilities in the eastern Mediterranean, including placing S-400 and S-300 air defense systems, Bastion and Bal coastal defense systems, and Pantsir point-defense systems together with air force and naval units. Although the political geography of the region and the more-limited nature of Russian forces there mean that Moscow does not have the same kind of defensive control as it does in the Black Sea, its forces in the Mediterranean are strong enough to present a potent challenge to U.S. and NATO naval dominance in the region.

The Missions of the Russian Navy

Strategic deterrence remains the most important mission for the Russian Navy globally, but coastal defense and control of territorial waters are a close second and are paramount concerns in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Russia has traditionally considered coastal defense to mean simply keeping foreign navies away from the Russian coast; since 2015, however, the coastal-defense mission has come to encompass protection of Russian forces in Syria as well. Furthermore, over the last decade, the Russian Navy has increasingly focused on improving its ability to work closely with Russian ground forces and the Russian air force in joint operations. This coordination was on display as early as 2014, when all of the services worked closely together to move forces to Crimea as part of the operation that resulted in Russia’s annexation of that region. Since that time, Russia has repeatedly focused its military exercises on joint operations. The positive effects of that focus have been evident in Russian naval operations in and near Syria, where Russian naval forces have coordinated closely with Russian air and ground forces both in striking targets on shore and in transporting personnel and equipment for Russian operations.

Russia is achieving its coastal-defense mission primarily through capability development rather than platform acquisition. This is why the Russian Navy is not as concerned as some Western analysts think it should be about the difficulties and delays it has faced in building large surface ships. Instead, it has built a large number of smaller patrol ships and corvettes that are highly capable in anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) operations. The idea is that the Russian Navy can use these ships to create maritime zones that are difficult for enemy forces to penetrate. These “A2/AD bubbles” in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean form a set of layered defenses and multiple vectors of attack through the combination of long-range sea-, air-, and ground-launched missiles used to deny access, with shorter-range coastal and air defense systems focused on area denial. As part of the coastal-defense mission, the Russian Navy will seek to establish credible maritime conventional deterrence against NATO through the combination of air defenses and cruise missile–equipped ships, which will work together to highlight that any use of NATO naval forces against Russian ships and facilities would be highly costly for the adversary.

In contrast, the Russian Navy has a relatively limited focus on traditional power projection and expeditionary warfare in the Mediterranean. Russia’s largest naval surface ships are Soviet legacy vessels that are becoming less reliable over time. Most of the new surface ships being built are relatively small and are unlikely to deploy far beyond Russia’s naval outposts in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. As a result, power projection will be largely based on the new generation of advanced Kilo-class diesel submarines and the regular presence of one or two cruise missile–carrying nuclear submarines deployed to the Mediterranean from the Northern Fleet. Russia’s legacy fleet of Soviet-era surface ships will continue to focus on status projection, carrying out port visits and similar activities to project the image of a great power. The Russian Navy also has a fairly limited expeditionary capability. Its small number of aging landing ships have reached the limit of their operational capacity in supporting Russia’s operations in Syria.

Constraints on Russian Naval Operations in the Mediterranean

The Russian Navy’s future plans in the Mediterranean face several constraints. On the financing side, Moscow invested heavily in naval procurement as part of the 2011-2020 State Armament Program. It was not willing to maintain such a high level of spending for the next ten years, especially given the constraints on overall military spending resulting from a relatively stagnant economic situation. As a result, the Russian Navy appears likely to be the biggest loser in the 2027 State Armament Program.

On the shipbuilding side, most Russian naval construction projects have faced significant delays. This is due to the combination of a long-term decline in naval research and development that is only starting to be reversed, an inability to modernize its shipbuilding industry, budgetary constraints that have forced the government to make tradeoffs about which construction and modernization programs to fund, and the end of defense cooperation with Ukrainian and Western suppliers in the aftermath of the 2014 conflict with Ukraine.

In terms of industrial capacity, most of Russia’s shipyards are not in the best shape. The Sevmash and Admiralty shipyards are exceptions and reveal the importance attached to submarine construction over surface ships. Russia’s other shipyards have generally been very slow in building ships. The situation has not been helped by the disruption of supply chains as a result of Western sanctions. Until the advent of Western sanctions in 2014, many key components were purchased from abroad. Although this disruption has been most evident in the cases of gas turbines and diesel engines, Moscow has also experienced problems with the acquisition of various electronic components and precision machine tools. For several years, therefore, the acquisition and development of advanced components were the biggest constraint on the construction of new ships with modern systems. However, most of these issues are now being resolved through the development of domestic alternatives, so faster naval construction is likely in the future.

Russia also faces operational challenges in naval operations in the Mediterranean. The primary challenge is one of logistics and bringing platforms to the fight. The Turkish Straits would likely be a severe hindrance to sending reinforcements and to Russia’s ability to redeploy back to the Black Sea in the event of a conflict involving NATO, especially if Turkey continues to follow the strictures of the Montreux Convention. Additionally, Russian intermediate-range bombers would likely face challenges transiting from Russia to the airspace over Syria.

Because of these challenges, Russian leadership would, prior to any outbreak in the eastern Mediterranean, have to choose whether to fight in the Mediterranean or attempt to bring forces back to the Black Sea to defend Russia’s southern borders. Should Russian forces stay in the Mediterranean, they would pose a serious threat to U.S. and NATO forces by creating an increasingly dense missile and electronic-warfare environment farther into the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Russia would have to expect that it would lose these forces to an ultimately numerically and qualitatively superior enemy force, albeit after exacting a potentially high cost on its adversary.

Russia’s Future Naval Role in the Mediterranean

In the future, the BSF is expected to support an even larger Mediterranean squadron, with a constant presence of one to two multipurpose submarines from the Northern Fleet and 10–15 surface ships (primarily from the BSF). Russia’s efforts to expand its presence in the Mediterranean would also require the establishment of more and bigger bases in the region. Such bases would not just provide an opportunity for refueling and repair of ships: They could also house coastal defensive systems that would protect the squadron.

In the near to medium term, the Russian Navy’s role will be to serve primarily as a deterrence force to constrain U.S. and NATO operations in the eastern Mediterranean and to provide forward defense for approaches to the Russian homeland through the Black Sea. It will have some power projection through its ability to hold opponents’ territory at risk with its cruise

missile capability, rather than through traditional naval strike groups. Out-of-area deployment capability will increasingly shift to smaller patrol ships and to submarines as Russia’s remaining Soviet-era large surface ships become increasingly less reliable.

Over the last decade, there has been a transition in the Russian Navy’s future planning from unattainable blue-water aspirations to establishing a fairly capable green-water force. Its overall focus remains defensive in the near term, with the possibility of greater emphasis on power projection in the medium term as more Yasen-class nuclear attack submarines come online and older Soviet submarines are armed with Kalibr cruise missiles as part of ongoing modernization plans.

This future force has the potential to threaten the naval forces of the United States and its allies with land-attack and antiship cruise missiles based on small ships in enclosed seas that are highly protected from attack and with difficult-to-detect modern submarines. The result will be a Russian Navy that, compared with the past, has much greater firepower and offensive range despite its dependence on relatively small platforms. This capability will make the Russian Navy a far more potent regional threat by the mid-2020s than it has been for several decades.

The Mediterranean will play a key role in Russian naval strategy because of its strategic significance as an access point to southern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. For Russia, the Mediterranean symbolizes the larger competition between Moscow and Washington. By building up its naval forces, Russia is hoping to circumscribe NATO access to the region, protect Russia’s southern flank, and assist its current and potential future client states in the region. At the same time, maintaining forces in the eastern Mediterranean is less of a priority for Russian strategy than defending the homeland. Maintaining naval presence in the Mediterranean is a far more effective strategy for the Russian Navy than pursuing a globally active blue-water navy because Russia has neither the resources nor the global ambitions to challenge U.S. naval supremacy around the world. Moscow’s focus on developing and augmenting the Mediterranean squadron is thus a far more achievable limited objective that is well-aligned with Russia’s foreign policy objectives in the region.

Strategic Russian Strategic Decision-Making in a Nordic Crisis

Here’s the second in a series of policy briefs on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, written for a collaborative project organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative. This one is on Russian strategic goals in a Nordic crisis. With permission from the Marshall Center, I am posting the full text here, though please go to the Marshall Center website if you would prefer to read a PDF version. The first of these briefs, focusing on the Baltics, was posted last April.


Executive Summary

  • This policy brief examines how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Nordic region. This analysis is based on a model of Russian decision-making in crisis situations that describes Russian leaders as prospect theory players who take greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than they do to pursue potential opportunities. They seek to prevent foreign policy defeats that could translate into a loss of power in the region, a loss of great power status, or, in some cases, political defeats at home.
  • Russia’s strategic objectives in the Nordic region are thus focused primarily on maintaining the status quo rather than changing the strategic environment or expanding Russian influence in a significant way. The primary objective is simply to maintain Russian influence in the region. Russia is also working to prevent the formal admission of Sweden and Finland to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and to deter Sweden and Finland from joining NATO in fighting against Russia in the event of a conflict.
  • We can expect Russia to act cautiously in the Nordic region because it is not facing a loss situation. Russian leaders will tend to pursue their goals through nonmilitary means and will be careful to avoid unintended escalation. The one exception to their preference for nonescalation would occur in the event of an attack on Russian territory, which would create a loss situation for Russia and therefore allow for a robust defense and/or counterattack.

Introduction

 This policy brief, the second in a series that addresses how Russian strategic culture can explain Russian foreign policy behavior, examines how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Nordic region. The Nordic region is presented as a case study to generate conclusions with regard to the drivers of Russian strategic behavior, especially the factors that incentivize or constrain risk-taking.

Overview of Russian Strategic Decision-Making

This analysis is based on a model of crisis decision-making developed by the Russian analysis team at CNA. As an abbreviated version of this model has already been presented in a previous article in this series, what follows is a brief summary. The model presents Russia as a prospect theory player on the international scene that takes greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than it does to pursue potential opportunities.

Russian strategic objectives are rooted in and derived from the following three principal Russian foreign policy motivations:

  • Maximizing security, which results in the pursuit of extended defense and has been the main driver for Russian aggression in its near abroad and Russia’s military modernization at home.
  • Russia’s desire for a privileged sphere of influence as an effort to achieve regional hegemony based on the goal of maximizing its overall power.
  • Maintaining great power status in the international system by ending U.S. primacy and thereby upending the unipolar nature of power distribution in the international system in favor of a multipolar one. However, this motivation does not necessarily mean that Russia wants to challenge the United States directly, given the power disparity.

Russian leaders prefer to achieve their political goals through coercion and threats of violence, rather than actual violence. Russian strategy in a conflict seeks to establish escalation dominance over potential adversaries by convincing them that Russia is able and willing to use force in pursuit of its objectives. When pressed to use force, Russia tends to use the minimum amount of force required to achieve its objectives in order to minimize losses and costs. This approach also allows Russia to maintain the threat of bringing in additional force if the adversary does not accept Russian objectives. Russia is happy to use force multipliers, such as local militias and mercenaries, to absorb the bulk of combat losses. Ambiguity is used to maintain plausible deniability and thereby slow adversary decision-making. Finally, Russia seeks to deter external actors from interfering in a conflict in order to prevent escalation.

Russia’s Strategic Assessment of the Nordic Region

Russia’s strategic calculus suggests that in the event of a crisis in the Nordic region, Russia will focus on the geographic and political environment in the region in determining its strategic objectives and minimum and maximum goals for the situation.

The geography of the Baltic Sea would play a particularly important role in Russia’s assessment of a potential maritime conflict scenario. The geography of the Baltic Sea in many ways mirrors that of the Black Sea, except that the geography favors NATO and its partners, rather than Russia. Like the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea is enclosed, with passage restricted by the Danish Straits. Although the Oresund and Fehmarn Belt are considered international straits, as governed by the Copenhagen Convention of 1857, they could easily be closed by NATO forces in the event of a conflict, effectively preventing Russia from bringing naval reinforcements to the Baltic Sea from the Northern Fleet or the Mediterranean. In addition, a series of islands can provide effective control over the sea itself. Bornholm (controlled by Denmark), Gotland (Sweden) and the Aland Islands (Finland), can be used to control the sea lanes in the Baltic Sea as well as the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia. These islands thus can play the same role in the Baltic as Crimea does in the Black Sea. Furthermore, Estonia and Finland effectively control entrance to the Gulf of Finland and therefore to St. Petersburg.

Although Western analysts often paint Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave as a militarized territory that threatens the security of the NATO member states in the region, Russian planners view the region as a vulnerable outpost surrounded by potentially well-armed NATO states. As a result of these factors, Russia feels that the region’s geography is relatively negatively set up for Russian forces to act in the event of a conflict with NATO and its partners.

Russia’s political assessment also emphasizes the potential challenges of a military conflict in the region. Although Sweden and Finland are ostensibly neutral, Russian leaders fully expect them to be involved on the side of NATO in any conflict between NATO and Russia. They point to statements that the two countries have made, such as the European Union (EU) solidarity clause and the EU Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) effort joined by Sweden and Finland in 2017, that strongly imply such a scenario. They also note that the two countries have been strengthening their military forces in recent years and have increasingly integrated these forces with NATO. Both Sweden and Finland have increased their frequency of participation in NATO exercises. These developments are seen in Russia as clear signals that neither country will stay out of the fight in the event of a conflict.

On the other side, Swedish planners fear that Russia might preemptively attack Gotland in a conflict in order to take control of the middle section of the Baltic Sea. They have responded by placing troops on the island for the first time in over a decade. Although the force is only the size of a regiment, it is meant as a symbol of Swedish intent in combination with the reintroduction of military conscription. Russia has decried this move as a step toward the further militarization of the region.

Finland’s history of relations with Russia makes its leaders cautious about exacerbating tensions with Moscow. They point to their losses in previous wars with the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s, which resulted in the policy of “Finlandization” that effectively meant that Finland did not have full control over its foreign policy orientation until the end of the Cold War, a period of over 40 years. As a result, Finnish leaders have generally avoided hostile rhetoric against Russia while retaining more contacts with Moscow than other countries in the region. Furthermore, most of the Finnish population remains opposed to their country joining NATO. Although Finland has supported EU sanctions against Russia in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, it has retained significant trade relations and has a sizable expatriate Russian population in Helsinki. Russia has proved adept at using trade links and expatriate Russian populations in other European countries to undermine anti-Russian policies. Similar tactics could be used in the Nordic region.

Russia’s Strategic Objectives

Russia’s strategic objectives in the Nordic region are thus focused primarily on maintaining the status quo rather than changing the strategic environment or expanding Russian influence in a significant way. The primary objective is simply to maintain Russian influence in the region. To this end, Russia has undertaken a propaganda effort to show the citizens of these countries that Russia does not threaten them. Russia has pursued political influence operations to prevent the growth of negative political attitudes toward Russia. To this end, there are concerns that it has used the Russian expatriate population and other pro-Russian activists in the region, especially in Finland, as a supportive element. It has also provided support to political parties and societal organizations critical of the EU and especially of NATO as a way of limiting the trend toward closer cooperation between NATO and the two nonmember Nordic states. Russia has also sought to maintain and enhance economic linkages with Nordic states, most notably through the strategic use of its role as an energy supplier to Finland. It is estimated that forty percent of Finland’s energy comes from Russia, and Russia has taken steps in recent years to make the import of electricity cheaper for Finland in order to maintain that connection.

In regard to military issues, Russia has worked to prevent the formal admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO. To this end, it has used a classic carrot-and-stick approach. Russian media has highlighted popular opposition to NATO membership within these countries, noting the likelihood of negative political consequences for any government that chooses to pursue NATO membership. Russian officials have threatened political, economic, and military consequences for Sweden and Finland should they choose to formally join NATO. The implicit threat is that not only would cheap energy supplies end and trade be negatively affected, but Russia could use tactics it has pursued elsewhere, such as cyberattacks and funding of antigovernment groups, to undermine political stability in these countries. Russian media have also suggested the possibility that Russia might offer inducements to Sweden and Finland for remaining neutral or at least not joining NATO formally.

In the event of a regional crisis, Russian leaders would seek to deter Sweden and Finland from joining NATO in fighting against Russia. They would seek to preempt the threat by neutralizing Nordic militaries through a Russian military buildup in the region combined with the threat that Russia would target these countries’ territories should fighting break out. Russia’s minimum goal in a Nordic crisis is thus to maintain and exacerbate existing divisions in the Nordic states that prevent them from seeking to join NATO and to inhibit further integration of their military forces with NATO forces short of membership. Russia’s maximum goal is to reverse the existing close integration of the military forces of the Nordic states with those of the United States and NATO and ideally to have these states recommit to neutrality in deed as well as in word.

Russia’s Vulnerabilities

Russia’s vulnerabilities in a Nordic crisis are to a large extent the same as its vulnerabilities in other regions, though there are some aspects particular to this region. The Russian military has relatively few forces in northwestern Russia because its main focus in recent years has been on securing the Caucasus, reinforcing its border with Ukraine, and building up forces in the Arctic and the Far North. Russian forces in northwestern Russia are not equipped for a short-notice conventional conflict, with relatively few mechanized units and a command structure not set up to fight a war in this region. As noted above, the geography of the region makes a maritime conflict relatively complicated for Russia, though that disadvantage may be mitigated in a broader engagement due to the Nordic region’s proximity to Russia and the relatively long border with Finland.

Russia is hampered by its lack of allies in the European theater. Although Belarus is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and a Russian military partner, it would be unlikely to actively participate in a Russian military campaign. It might, however, reluctantly allow Russia to use its territory as a staging area in a conflict with NATO. Recent political tensions about the extent to which Belarus can be expected to integrate with Russia have highlighted the limits of the relationship between Moscow and Minsk. Other allies are even less likely to get involved. Neither Russia’s other CSTO allies nor China will want to get involved in a fight with NATO and (with the exception of China) would not be able to contribute significantly to the effort.

As with any conflict with a powerful but distant adversary, Russian leaders would be concerned that the overall force balance between Russia and NATO would become highly unfavorable in a longer-term conflict. For this reason, they would want to keep the conflict short and ensure that any conflict in the region would not result in horizontal escalation, which could expose Russian territory to defeat by the much larger and stronger U.S. military in a regional or even global conflict. They would be particularly concerned about the possibility that the conflict could spread to other theaters, especially the Mediterranean, which would cause Russia’s forces to be stretched thin in a fight on multiple fronts.

Finally, Russian leaders may be concerned about the impact of any kind of extended or costly intervention on Russian domestic politics. They will want to make sure that they avoid costly and long-lasting entanglements that might result in the Russian public turning against the intervention. Such a situation would be especially likely if Western states pursued strong economic countermeasures that had a direct negative effect on the Russian economy or on Russians’ ability to travel to Europe. In particular, this scenario would be a problem in a conflict that the Russian public might see as a war of choice rather than of necessity, especially one that becomes costly in either financial or human terms. For this reason, Russian leaders will seek to avoid both defeat and long-term entanglement in a Nordic conflict, as these circumstances would increase the likelihood of a strong negative effect at the domestic level.

Red Lines and (De-)Escalation Drivers

As in the Baltics, Russian leaders would view a crisis in the Nordic region primarily as a potential opportunity to realize strategic gains rather than as a threat to Russia’s vital interests. As a result, they would consider the stakes to be relatively low in most situations. This assessment would lead to a strategy of managing the crisis carefully in order to keep costs low and avoid triggering a vigorous response by NATO. Although it is important for Russia to keep Sweden and Finland out of NATO, Russia would not be likely to mount a military response if the two Nordic states take steps toward that goal. Concerns about the vulnerabilities described above, especially the danger of horizontal escalation to other theaters and the risk of loss of popularity at home due to high casualties or serious financial impact from a conflict, would encourage Russian leaders to de-escalate hostilities in the event of a crisis in the Nordic region.

The one exception to this calculus would occur in the event of a NATO attack on Russian territory. Such an attack would lead to escalation as it would pose a direct threat to the homeland and regime survival while uniting the Russian population in defense of their homeland. The Russian people have shown repeatedly that they are far more likely to accept sacrifices to defend the country than to engage in a war of choice, so Russia should be expected to escalate any conflict where control of its own territory is at stake.

Conclusion

Russia’s main peacetime goals in the Nordic region involve preventing further military integration of the Nordic states with NATO. The primary means to carry out these goals are political and cyber in nature, rather than military. In a conflict, Russia’s main goals would be similar: to keep the Nordic states out of any conflict with NATO or to keep NATO out of any conflict with a Nordic state. Escalation poses serious risks to Russia, so Russian leaders would be unlikely to initiate a conflict in the region. Russia would be much more willing to defend itself if threatened or attacked but otherwise would limit itself to using indirect means to weaken the Nordic states and to undermine their unity with their NATO partners.

Russian Strategic Culture in a Baltic Crisis

As part of a collaborative project on Russian strategic culture and leadership decision-making, organized by the Marshall Center with support from the Russia Strategy Initiative, I have published a policy brief on Russian strategic goals in a Baltic crisis. Here is  the executive summary and some highlights. The full brief is available through the Marshall Center website.

Executive Summary

  • This policy brief addresses how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Baltic region. This analysis is based on a model of Russian decisionmaking in crisis situations that describes Russian leaders as prospect theory players who take greater risks to prevent anticipated defeats than they do to pursue potential opportunities. They seek to prevent foreign policy defeats that could translate into a loss of power in the region, a loss of great power status, or, in some cases, translate into political defeats at home.
  • Given this strategic calculus, we can expect Russia to act cautiously in the Baltic region because it is not facing a loss situation. Based on Russia’s limited stakes in the region, Russian leaders are likely to be highly reluctant to risk a major military confrontation with NATO through any overuse of Russian military forces. They will be careful to limit both the level of risk and the level of effort they would take on in this scenario.
  • Russia’s approach to managing a Baltic crisis scenario is based on the recognition that the balance of stakes and capabilities in such a situation ultimately would favor the West. If Baltic governments and their NATO allies both hesitate in their response, Russian leaders may seek to use the crisis to gain a strategic advantage. However, if Russian leaders see a forceful response in the early stages of a crisis, they would be likely to de-escalate in order to avert major losses.

Introduction

How relevant are the concepts of strategic culture and operational code in explaining Russian foreign policy behavior? This policy brief addresses how Russian strategic culture operates in the distinct geographic and geopolitical environment of the Baltic region (that is, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). The goal is to use the Baltic case study to generate conclusions about the drivers of Russian strategic behavior, especially the factors that incentivize or constrain risk-taking.

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Applying Strategic Calculus to the Baltic Region

Given the strategic calculus described above, Russia would be expected to act far more cautiously in the Baltics than it did in Ukraine in 2014. Unlike that crisis, Russia is not facing a loss situation in the Baltic region. In Ukraine, Russia was facing the prospect of a potentially catastrophic loss of power and influence if Ukraine joined the Western alliance system against Russian wishes. The Baltic states, on the other hand, are already members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) and are therefore outside of Russia’s sphere of influence. Any effort on Russia’s part to attack or politically destabilize the region would thus be an effort to make gains, not avert losses. In effect, the Baltics have already been lost to Russia, and the geopolitical impact of that loss has been fully absorbed into Russian strategic thinking.

That said, Russia could benefit politically and militarily by achieving greater control over the Baltic region, which would allow Russia to strengthen its position as the dominant regional power while simultaneously enhancing its security. But these gains would be fairly small and hardly worth the enormous risk of attacking a NATO member state. Moreover, these gains can easily be overstated. The Baltics are too small to provide much of a security buffer for Russia, and they cannot host a large Western military force. Furthermore, the NATO-Russia Founding Act already limits the number of Western forces that can be permanently deployed in the region. All of these factors reduce the significance of the threat to Russia from the Baltic states, even though they are firmly allied with the United States and are part of NATO.

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Russian Strategic Objectives in a Baltic Crisis

In a Baltic crisis scenario, Russia would have two primary strategic objectives. First, it would seek to use the crisis to achieve geopolitical gains at the local, regional, and global levels. At the local level, it would first and foremost seek to defend the ethnic Russian populace to vindicate its compatriot policy and increase its influence in Baltic domestic politics. At the regional and global levels, Russia would seek to undermine the credibility and cohesion of the NATO alliance in order to strengthen Russia’s geopolitical position in Eastern Europe and inflict a political defeat on NATO.


The policy brief may be read in its entirety here.